Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Francis Samuel Williamson (1865–1936)

by Hugh Anderson

This article was published:

Francis Samuel Williamson (1865-1936), poet and schoolteacher, was born on 18 January 1865 at Fitzroy, Melbourne, son of English-born William Williamson, coachmaker, and his Scottish wife Mary Ann, née McCoy. After completing his schooling at Scotch College, Melbourne, he was appointed in 1882 a pupil-teacher with the Education Department at Flemington State School. He resigned in 1884 when at North Melbourne State School.

In 1888-94 Williamson taught at Wesley College, Melbourne. A popular junior master, he was inclined to give his classes a singsong instead of formal work 'whenever the cheerful whim or the occasional hangover made him rebel at orthodox behaviour'. 'Long Bill' was regarded as 'the epitome of the easy-going school' which Arthur Way, the headmaster, saw 'dimly and kindly through his thick spectacles'. Sir Frederic Eggleston was more severe: while a good poet who inspired many boys with a love of poetry, Williamson 'was irregular and though he was kept on for many years … became almost an outcast'. In 1894 he joined Arthur Lucas's staff at Newington College, Sydney, but returned to Wesley in 1902. Apart from his usual classroom duties, Williamson participated in rowing, cricket and the cadets until the end of 1904 when he was dismissed, apparently for drunkenness.

Over six feet (183 cm) tall and well proportioned, Williamson 'carried himself like the proverbial lord'. A 'golden talker', he belonged—with Bernard O'Dowd, Marie Pitt, Frederick Sinclaire and others—to a discussion group called 'The Heretics'. In 1912 a collection of Williamson's poetry, Purple and Gold, named after Wesley's colours, was published by Thomas Lothian. It contained twenty-eight poems: two relating to the school, 'Before the Boat Race' and 'Flag Song', were set to music by the headmaster Lawrence Adamson and printed in the Wesley College Song Book. Williamson's most famous poem, 'The Magpie's Song', which appeared in several anthologies in the 1920s and 1930s, had been published in Purple and Gold. A 1940 edition of this book, enlarged to fifty-five poems by Bob Croll, was introduced by Sir John Latham who saw in Williamson's poems 'a lyrical quality of delicate beauty'.

After 1905 Williamson spent the remainder of his career as a temporary head teacher in the Education Department, usually staying a few months only, never in the same school twice, and at places as far apart as Lavers Hill and Bonang, though the majority of his appointments were in Gippsland. Between 1905 and 1930 he was head teacher in fifty-four rural schools. Following his retirement, Williamson was given a Commonwealth literary pension. His last years were spent in Melbourne where he died on 6 February 1936 and was cremated. He never married. Percival Serle considered him a strange case of an educated man writing a fair amount of verse of small merit until in middle life 'something blossomed in him and he wrote half a dozen quite beautiful poems'.

Select Bibliography

  • R. H. Croll, I Recall (Melb, 1939)
  • G. Blainey et al, Wesley College (Melb, 1967)
  • Landfall, 113 (Mar 1975)
  • Brady papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Eggleston papers (Thomas Stuart Clyne)
  • Serle papers (State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

Hugh Anderson, 'Williamson, Francis Samuel (1865–1936)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 15 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (Melbourne University Press), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


18 January, 1865
Fitzroy, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


6 February, 1936 (aged 71)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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